Gov. Greg Abbott’s two most vocal GOP challengers have long sought to push their party to the right

Republican Texas gubernatorial candidates Don Huffines, left, and Allen West before a forum in College Station last month. (Mark Felix For The Texas Tribune, Mark Felix For The Texas Tribune)

On Texas GOP primary ballots, Don Huffines and Allen West are technically opponents who each want to unseat Republican Gov. Greg Abbott next week. But on the campaign trail, they’ve largely put up a united front as they appear together at events across the state with platforms that are nearly indistinguishable as they portray Abbott as insufficiently conservative.

That tactic doesn’t seem to be garnering either of them enough support to unseat the incumbent. Abbott is expected to easily fend off all of his intraparty candidates in the March 1 primary and avoid a runoff for the party nomination, according to a recent University of Texas / Texas Politics Project Poll.

But for Huffines and West — the two most vocal and well known of Abbott’s GOP challengers — losing the nomination won’t necessarily mean they’ve lost ground in the larger goal both have long tried to achieve: moving the Republican party further to the right.

Their platforms call for drastically reducing property taxes or eliminating them outright. They say they would replace that revenue, which funds everything from Texas schools and city streets to local governments, with a much larger consumption tax — though neither candidate has named the amount by which they’d want to raise Texas’ 6.25% state sales tax. They also would send more troops to the state’s southern border — beyond the 10,000 Texas National Guard members already deployed under Abbott’s Operation Lone Star. And they want to let parents use tax dollars to subsidize private or charter school education for their children.

Brendan Steinhauser, a political strategist and professor of political science at St. Edward’s University in Austin, said those policy choices are key to the pair’s shared goal of taking Abbott’s job.

“They're looking to get to his right because they know that's the key to winning a Republican primary,” Steinhauser said. “They’re looking to move the debate to their ground.”

Huffines, the former state senator, and West, the former chair of the Republican Party of Texas, have each taken different roads to become chief intraparty critics of the sitting governor. And they’ve long exhibited vastly different styles and motivations in their bids for public office, according to both friends and political foes.

Huffines, a former real estate developer from Dallas, is known as someone who actually lives by the conservative values he espouses, according to those who know him.

“I think he's just an honest person,” said Republican former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. “Today, sometimes that's hard to understand because you don't hear much truth from politicians … all we hear are lies and innuendos.”

West, on the other hand, is a former Florida congressman known as a brash and strategic man who uses his attention-grabbing persona to build a loyal fan base.

In the past year, that personality has been on display as he challenged a reporter in the Texas Capitol to a pushup competition and attended a protest against mask mandates outside the Texas Governor’s Mansion with a megaphone in hand.

“He relished people asking him about why he was doing something,” said Mitch Ceasar, who served as chair of the Broward County Democratic Party during West’s congressional term in that part of Florida. “Part of his intelligence is his desire to stake out a niche that's a little further out there than anybody else to get attention.”

From a military career to politics

During West’s 22 years in the military, he was deployed during the Gulf War and the Iraq War and achieved the title of lieutenant colonel. His military career ended after he was found guilty in 2003 of Uniform Code of Military Justice violations, including assault. According to testimony delivered in a hearing, soldiers under West’s command assaulted an Iraqi civilian. West subsequently threatened the man’s life and fired at least one shot inches from his head. West retired a few months later.

"I know the method I used was not right, but I wanted to take care of my soldiers," West testified during the investigation of the events, according to CNN. “If it's about the lives of my soldiers at stake, I'd go through hell with a gasoline can."

West did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

After retiring from the military in 2004, West moved to Florida, where he taught history and coached track at a public high school south of Palm Beach before moving on to work for a defense contractor. Although Allen won the Republican primary for Florida’s 22nd congressional district in 2008, he lost the general election, his first matchup against Ron Klein, by nearly 10 points. During the tea party movement’s first wave in the early 2010s, he gained traction on a platform against Obama-era policies like the Affordable Health Care Act (which had passed the previous year) and won against Klein by nearly 9 points.

Richard DeNapoli, the former chair of the Republican Party of Broward County, said West has a knack for eliciting loyalty from GOP voters.

“I never saw that many volunteers except for when he ran,” DeNapoli said. “People got invested in Allen West.”

West won the 2010 race and during his first term voted to repeal “Obamacare” and called for an investigation into the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. Ceasar, the local Democratic party chair, said the freshman lawmaker was known in South Florida’s political circles for his outspoken comments calling U.S. House Democrats communists and comparing himself to Harriet Tubman.

West served only one term, though, after redistricting drew him out of his district and he lost a bid for another term in Congress. In 2014, he moved to Texas. The state first garnered his admiration after he saw the 1960 film “The Alamo” starring John Wayne, West wrote in his 2018 book “Hold Texas, Hold the Nation.”

“I was simply enthralled with men who would make a stand for freedom,” he wrote. “I will stand for conservative values and conservative success until the end, and I will make my stand in Texas.”

After West did stints at conservative Texas think tanks, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick appointed him in 2015 to the state’s Sunset Advisory Commission, which evaluates governmental agencies and makes recommendations to improve their efficiency, sometimes by shutting them down. Then in 2020, West ousted James Dickey as chair of the Republican Party of Texas.

Houston attorney Mark McCaig said the Texas GOP under West’s leadership was more interested in attacking Republican officials than in communicating the party’s successes. In one instance of infighting, West led a protest outside Abbott’s home in October 2020 demanding pandemic restrictions be lifted immediately — in spite of Abbott’s announcement days before that major restrictions would be lifted the following week.

West stepped down as GOP chair last year after announcing his bid to officially challenge Abbott in this year’s primary.

West has campaigned across the state in an oversized, double-decker bus that matches his outsized personality. At campaign stops, West flexes his master’s degree in philosophy as he fits quotes from Karl Marx, Ronald Reagan, the U.S. Constitution, the Bible and a rolodex of military history into a matter of minutes.

At several candidate forums in January, West wielded his personal experiences in the military to empathize with the Texas National Guard troops who have described deplorable conditions and an unclear mission after Abbott deployed them to the Texas-Mexico border to stem a flow of migrants crossing into the United States.

“They don't have a defined task and purpose; they're just down there as bystanders, and they're away from their families,” he said at a candidate forum in Lake Travis last month, referring to the suicides of some Texas National Guard troops since they were deployed late last year.

West has also criticized Abbott for his pandemic response that reduced capacity or closed Texas businesses in 2020. He’s recently referenced Florida on the campaign trail after Gov. Ron DeSantis last year signed legislation banning some coronavirus precautions, like vaccine requirements and mask mandates. West’s comparisons between Texas and Florida came even though Abbott has also opposed mask mandates and vaccine requirements, largely through executive orders and lawsuits.

“I'm sick and tired of all my friends that I have back there in Florida calling me and telling me how great Ron DeSantis is doing and how great Florida’s doing when Texas, the Lone Star, should be leading the other 49 stars on that flag,” West said in Lake Travis last month.

Leaning on legislative experience

Huffines, the former state senator, has already appeared successful in influencing how Abbott governs on a number of hot-button topics, including pandemic-era safety mandates, border security and health care access for transgender children.

Huffines was born into a wealthy and influential North Texas family. His father ran successful car dealerships and banks and became involved with politics as a member of several statewide commissions. Huffines’ twin brother also ran unsuccessfully for Texas Senate against Angela Paxton in 2018 and served a brief stint as the chair of the Dallas County GOP in 2016.

Although he was involved with several Republican campaigns, including Paul’s, through the early 2000s, Huffines’ political involvement was limited until after his father died in 2009, around the same time the tea party movement picked up steam.

Then, in 2014, he decided to run for office and took aim at a state Senate seat in North Texas. It pitted him against longtime Republican John Carona, who’d been in the Senate for 19 years. Huffines accused the incumbent of being a “career politician” who was primarily looking out for himself.

“I’m tired of being on the sidelines,” Huffines said as he announced the campaign in late 2013.

Huffines ousted Carona in the primary and won the general election. But he said his frustration with intraparty politics solidified during his first GOP caucus meeting shortly after inauguration.

“They just get this brainwashing going on that elected office holders down there are the elitists of the world … and our loyalty lies with our fellow club members; it doesn't lie with the voters,” Huffines told The Texas Tribune.

The experience influenced his entire term in the Legislature’s upper chamber.

“My battle was generally with Republicans when I was there. It wasn't necessarily with the Democrats,” Huffines said. “It was mainly with Republicans because they're always trying not to be accountable, not to take the hard vote, because they campaign one way and they want to govern a different way.”

In his first term, Huffines co-authored an early version of the bill that mandated burial of fetal remains after an aboriton — which was later struck down by a federal judge. Huffines also pushed legislation that would have made it more difficult to pass bonds, commonly used to fund projects in Texas school districts, by requiring 30% of all voters on the voter registration rolls cast a ballot even though such elections are known to draw out a small fraction of voters.

In 2017, he introduced a bill that would have allowed Texans to carry a firearm without a permit. He also authored resolutions that would have limited terms of the governor and other statewide elected officials to two four-year terms and would limit state legislators to 12 years in either chamber. Those bills didn’t pass, but permitless carrying of firearms did become law after Huffines himself was ousted from the Senate.

In spite of the limited success of his own legislation, Huffines maintains that he delivered on his campaign promises like saving taxpayer dollars by fighting to close Dallas County Schools, a bus transportation agency, which was investigated by the FBI and ultimately shut down for mismanagement.

But Huffines was unseated in 2018 by Democrat Nathan Johnson. He believes Huffines’ views are heartfelt, but said that’s what makes him an untenable candidate for Senate District 16 voters.

“Huffines, in an odd sort of way to his credit, shares and stands by his convictions,” Johnson wrote in a 2017 Facebook post. “Each day more SD 16 residents learn that his convictions make for harmful public policy.”

Like West, Huffines hasn’t shied away from controversial remarks. Last month, he referred to COVID-19 as “the Wuhan” — a reference to the Chinese city where the virus was first discovered — while answering a question about vaccine and mask mandates.

Referring to the coronavirus by its place of origin rather than its scientific name has been derided as racist and xenophobic since the pandemic began. And Huffines’ references came after the number of hate crimes against Asian Americans skyrocketed during the pandemic.

Later during that panel, while answering a question about competition in the U.S. job market between domestic and international workers, Huffines without evidence accused Chinese international students of partaking in espionage.

“One thing we've got a lot in our graduate programs in the universities here, and our Ph.D. programs, is a lot of communist Chinese students,” he said. “They're taking all of that information back.”

Last month, Jake Lloyd Colglazier, a staffer on Huffines’ campaign, was revealed to have made comments about white supremacy on YouTube and other social media platforms.

In response, Huffines said his campaign would not fire Colglazier because he does not believe in “cancel culture.” But Huffines distanced himself from the staffer, saying that he has more than 70 people on his payroll and did not know Colglazier.

In spite of his similarities to West and other candidates, Huffines maintains that he stands out among the field.

“I'm the only candidate running for governor that's been in the Legislature, been in the swamp as I say, and I can tell you I could not imagine being governor without having that experience,” he said.

Disclosure: University of Texas, St. Edward’s University and Facebook have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.